Thomas More: Facts, Death & Family Tree

Instructor: Amy Kasza
In this lesson, we'll learn about the Renaissance humanist Thomas More's background and how he found himself so at odds with Henry VIII that he paid with his life. Following this, you'll be able to test your knowledge with a quiz!

Introduction

The name Thomas More is well enough known for being a character in a famous play and film (not to mention a pretty racy TV series called 'The Tudors') and for having a lot of schools named after him, but who was he and why is he remembered?

Well, he was a renowned scholar, statesman, lawyer, Renaissance humanist (one who emphasizes the importance of the study of history, poetry, philosophy, grammar, and rhetoric), and confidant of King Henry VIII. It was his opposition to one of Henry VIII's policies that led to More's execution for treason, but also More's canonization as a saint within the Roman Catholic Church. This is why you usually see him referred to as 'Saint Thomas More.'

Background, Education, Family Life

More's father was a lawyer and judge who saw to it that Thomas, the eldest of his three sons and the only one to survive to adulthood, received a classical education, presumably to establish him on a path toward practicing law.

While still young, More served in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury who was also the Lord Chancellor of England, an experience that exposed him to the highest echelons of both religious and secular political power. With his education nearly complete, More hesitated to enter into the practice of law while he instead considered the possibility of becoming a monk. Although he spent time living in a monastery and adopted the lifelong habits of prayer, fasting, and penance, More ultimately decided upon a career in law. He was elected a member of Parliament in 1504, shortly after which he married for the first time and had four children -- three daughters and one son -- over the next six years.

In 1511, More's first wife died. He remarried almost immediately, though this second marriage produced no additional children. Going against the custom of the day, More provided his daughters as well as his son with a thoroughly humanist education, including tutoring them to become fluent in Greek and Latin. His oldest daughter, Margaret, later published her English translation of a Latin treatise by More's good friend, Erasmus.

Political Career

Valued for his wisdom, education, and sound counsel, More's political star rose steadily during the reign of Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch, which began in 1509. He served as a privy councillor, which was a member of the King's closest group of advisers. He participated in diplomatic missions with Cardinal Wolsey, who was the Lord Chancellor (the second highest ranking government official). In 1521, he received a knighthood, and in 1523, the House of Commons elected him Speaker. In 1529, King Henry VIII appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor to succeed Cardinal Wolsey.

Sir Thomas More during his tenure as Lord Chancellor of England
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Opposition to Henry VIII and Execution for Treason

In the late 1520s and early 1530s, Henry VIII undertook a series of actions that culminated in the separation of England from the Roman Catholic Church and the declaration of Henry himself as Supreme Head of the Church in England -- instead of the Pope. The catalyst for Henry VIII's campaign was his desire to end his marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. These events unfolded against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation, which was raging in Europe and just beginning to take root in England.

Given his unwavering faith and commitment to the Catholic Church and the Pope, Thomas More increasingly found himself caught between his duty to his king and his conscience. He did not support the divorce from Katherine of Aragon or marriage to Anne Boleyn, though he could remain silent about his disagreement and allow events to unfold without helping to move them forward. When Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 -- which required all English subjects to swear to the King's supremacy over the church in England -- More repeatedly maneuvered to avoid taking the oath.

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